FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Coach Mike Smith took his first steps to help the Atlanta Falcons return to NFL relevance, firing defensive line coach Ray Hamilton and offensive line coaches Pat Hill and Paul Dunn on Monday.
One day after ending a 4-12 season, Smith said the team must get tougher to win the line of scrimmage on both sides of the line.
Smith said that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong will return next season.
The firings of Hamilton, Hill and Dunn were hardly surprising as Atlanta’s offensive and defensive lines rarely won game-long battles on the line of scrimmage.
Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times. Poor play on the defensive line led to Atlanta entering Week 17 ranked last in third-down efficiency, 29th in scoring and 28th in total yards.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff lamented “missed assessments” on acquiring some players and letting others go and how those moves affected the team.
When training camp started, neither Smith nor Dimitroff envisioned discussing anything worse than a loss in the Super Bowl after the Falcons narrowly lost the NFC title game last season.
But injuries to wideout Julio Jones, left tackle Sam Baker and defensive end Kroy
Biermann were too much to overcome. Sean Weather-
spoon, supposed to be the only every-down linebacker, was hurt and limited to seven games. Receiver Roddy White and running back Steven Jackson played injured most of the season.
“We believe we have a talented football team here and that we need to make adjustments,” Dimitroff said, “but I really, truly believe we have the nucleus and the coach and the leadership to turn this around quickly.”
Though he and Smith wouldn’t cite specific players, they didn’t dispute that the offensive line was a disaster.
Peter Konz was overmatched as starting center and right guard. The right tackle position was in flux all season, and Lamar Holmes was inconsistent at left tackle.
No discrepancy was worse than in the 21-20 season-ending home loss to Carolina. Ryan was sacked nine times and hit 14 others. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was sacked once and hit once.
Ryan refused to blame his teammates for the poor protection. The two-time Pro Bowl QB, who signed a five-year, $103.75 million contract last summer, was more disturbed about his interception that Panthers cornerback Melvin White returned for a 3-yard touchdown.
“We all have to improve,” Ryan said. “I have to play better. We have to play better up front. We have to play better on the outside. Collectively, we didn’t play good enough to win.”
Atlanta’s defensive line wasn’t much better. Releasing veteran end John Abraham last March proved to be a bad decision after he put up big numbers for Arizona. His replacement, free agent acquisition Osi Umenyiora, was unable to hold onto the role he wanted as an every-down end.
But Smith and Dimitroff were proud of the performances of rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant, a first-round draft pick, and rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow, an undrafted free agent.